Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo

Omorenomwara, or Doris Scagglethorpe to her family, is the first person narrator of Blonde Roots and a domestic slave of Chief Kaga Konata Katamba.

He made his fortune in the import-export game, the notorious transatlantic slave run, before settling down to life in polite society as an absentee sugar baron, part-time husband, freelance father, retired decent human being and, it goes without saying, sacked soul.

My boss is also a full-time anti-abolitionist, publishing his pro-slavery rants in his mouthpiece The Flame – a pamphlet distributed far and wide – as a freebie.

Doris was taken from the fields owned by Lord Percival Montague, which her family farmed. The rumours were that the slave raiders and the aristocrats were in league with each other, trading slaves for guns. Once captured, slaves were transported to the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa, part of the continent of Aphrika.

Doris/Omorenomwara is tattooed with the initials of her first mistress – Panyin Ige Ghika (P.I.G.) and her current master (K.K.K.), under whom she’s risen to the heady heights of his personal secretary. She has a job for life, working 24 hours a day for no money and beatings for ‘insolence tardiness or absences’.

It was pretty standard for a domestic slave, and I have to say Bwana had no cause for complaint with me.

I was the perfect house wigger.

When we meet Doris/Omorenomwara, news reaches her that the Underground Railroad is operating again and she’s top of the list for escape. As we follow her journey to Paddinto Station and on the railroad to the boat that will take her away from the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa, she tells us about her family, about the lover she had and the children that were taken away from her. She tells us about the Ambossan cultural norms and how the whytes fail to live up to these norms.

Our guys would call women who looked like me Barbee, named after the popular rag dolls of the Motherland, those floppy little female figures with one-inch waists, blue-button eyes and four-inch blonde tresses which every little girl loved over there.

Not here, though. Find a little slave girl on this continent and you’ll discover she’s hankering after one of the Aphrikan Queens, a rag doll with a big butt, big lips, lots of bangles and woolly hair.

It was so bad for our self-esteem.

As Doris boards the boat, her narrative is interrupted by Chief Kaga Konata Katamba who tells the story of how he became involved in the slave trade and why. His pronouncements about the inferiority of the Caucasoinid are supported by anthropology, ideas of savagery and a mission to save souls. There’s a brilliant moment when he describes being taken deep into the natives’ settlement and witnessing the burning of a witch on a stake:

What can I say, Dear Reader, but the horror, the horror

It was worth multiple readings of Heart of Darkness just to register the perfect execution of that reference.

The final section of the novel takes us back to Doris/Onomorenomwara to see what becomes of her.

Blonde Roots is a brilliant counterfactual narrative. By reversing the slave trade, making Africans the masters and Europeans the slaves, Evaristo forces us to imagine how different life could have been. There’s a comedic element to this – hair falling out as women try to fashion their fine hair into afros; Ambossans performing The Whyte and Blak Minstrel Show in which they whyte up and Morris dance – but Evaristo’s utterly serious about whites recognising the horrors of the slave trade in a way I haven’t seen done before. She achieves this in two ways: firstly, by making Doris a first-person narrator. She could be one of us, taken from the fields, branded and stripped of her identity. Secondly, by using the language our ancestors used to justify their actions and turning them back on us – ‘whyte women were labelled sexually insatiable’, ‘the Caucasoinid breed is not of our kind’.

I haven’t a single criticism of this novel; the world Evaristo creates is fully-realised and consistently highlights the hypocrisy of imperialism through the imposition of one race’s cultural norms onto a race to which they are unsuitable at best and by showing the barbaric practices within white culture, leaving us wondering how that could lead whites to believe they were culturally superior to blacks.

Blonde Roots is a fascinating, pitch perfect counterfactual novel. Highly recommended.

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13 thoughts on “Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo

  1. It does sound fascinating and I’d love to read it, but this quote worried me a bit: “It was so bad for our self-esteem.” It seems heavy-handed (and, depending on when the novel is set, anachronistic)–is it representative?

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    • That line’s supposed to be funny. Perhaps it doesn’t come across out of the context of the whole novel. You could describe most of the book as ‘heavy-handed’ if you wanted to look at it that way, it’s certainly not subtle, nor is it meant to be. Evaristo has transposed lots of things said about and done to Africans on to white Europeans to highlight both how ridiculous and barbaric they are.

      There’s nothing to indicate exactly when the novels supposed to be set but the sections in Great Ambossa feel fairly current (minus modern technology) while Europe exists in a feudal system which seems to place it several centuries ago. Of course this is deliberate to show how backwards the Europeans are compared to the Aphrikans who’ve come to save and socialise them.

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      • Oh, I see! That makes a lot more sense; I can understand how it would work very well as sarcasm.

        Am keen to read this; I read Mr. Loverman last month and thought it was terrific, both generous and realistic. Have you read The Emperor’s Babe? That’s the other one I know about, and it sounds amazing: the life of the “barbarian” child-bride of a Roman emperor, told in couplets.

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      • I absolutely loved Mr Loverman. I haven’t read The Emperor’s Babe but it does sound good. I’ve got Soul Tourists on the pile next which also looks amazing. I’m just going to work my way through everything she’s written.

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      • i like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Christopher Priest’s The Separation is kind of counterfactual, though a bit more mysterious than that. I’d also recommend J Robert Lennon’s Familiar which does the same kind of thing on a much more personal level. An interesting Scottish on is Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledionia.

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      • I read Familiar and absolutely loved it. Not a Roth fan but when I’m in the mood to give him another go I’ll try that one. Haven’t heard of the others so will look them up. Thank you.

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  2. Pingback: Book Lists for All Humans #2 | The Writes of Woman

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